“Hi.” I forced myself to sound cheerful. It was important to fit in with this church group and not look like I was just here for the free pastries. Even though, let’s admit it, I was.
“Oh, I remember you, young man.” The blue-haired lady paused to wipe muffin crumbs from the front of her lacy floral shirt. “I saw you here the other day. I have a good eye for faces.” She seemed quite pleased with herself. Damn. She recognized me?
I swallowed the spit gathering in my mouth as I eyeballed the muffin she held. “‘With a keen eye for details, one truth prevails.’” I guess not eating brought out the poet in me.
“Oh, did you make that up?” she asked right before she bit into her second fluffy pastry. Was her goal to single-handedly eat all the treats?
“No, that’s from Gosho Aoyama,” I said.
God. I’m starving. Just my luck I’d been hijacked by Mary Poppins before I could grab a chocolate muffin and leave. My stomach growled loudly enough to be heard across the room. This was what I got for visiting the same damn church twice. I’d hoped nobody had noticed me last time I was here, and it would be safe. If I wasn’t desperate, I wouldn’t have come back. But the shelter I usually frequented had been vandalized and was closed, so here I was visiting with Chatty Cathy.
I eyed the group clutching their Bibles and interacting with each other as if they actually enjoyed being here. What would motivate these people to give away their entire Saturday afternoon to reread the same lame verses they’d probably read a million times over?
“I’m Polly.” She held out her hand. “And you are?”
About to eat the tablecloth if you don’t stop talking and go away.
Her face brightened. “Oh, like Saint Francis of Assisi?”
If he was homeless and a hooker, then sure.
“Not exactly.” I attempted a smile, but my face felt tight as I eyed the silver coffee urn. Maybe if I inched over slowly, I could snag a cup.
She put a hand to her lips as if telling me a secret. “These meetings are a lot more crowded now that the pastor has decided we need to be inclusive of the LMNOP community.”
“That’s LGBT, Polly.” The husky voice came from behind me.
I turned and met the curious, blue eyes of a redheaded guy about my height and age. He had pretty, full lips, which momentarily distracted me from my empty gut. A little buzz of attraction stirred in me, but I stamped it down. Last thing in the world I needed was to get involved with a Holy Roller. I had enough problems.
“Thanks, Randy.” Polly tossed her coffee cup in the trash nearby. “I can never keep it straight.”
“No pun intended?” It slipped out before I could stop myself.
Randy’s laugh sounded heartfelt, and the corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. “You’re funny.”
I was beginning to feel light-headed, I was so hungry. I cleared my throat and pointed to the pile of amazing-smelling pastries. “Mind if I grab a snack?”
Randy nodded and moved so I could get to the muffins. “Of course.” He grabbed a Styrofoam cup and filled it with piping-hot coffee. “Do you drink coffee?”
It took everything I had not to grab the cup from his hand and guzzle it down. “Yes. Thank you.” With slow, deliberate movements, I peeled the paper off the baked good, and waited what I hoped was the appropriate amount of time before biting into it. Oh Jesus. The first bite was sugary and warm, and I had to work really hard not to moan. How could a muffin taste this good?
I don’t know if Randy suspected how much I liked my snack or not, but a smile hovered on his lips as he watched me consume the treat. “My mom makes those. She also makes a killer blueberry scone.”
I nodded as if I cared, but I really didn’t. All I wanted was to be left alone with my beloved muffin and coffee. I sipped the strong, dark brew and sighed as it warmed my gut. About that time I noticed people starting to take seats near the podium. The long, dingy room was separated into two areas. There was the recreational space near the entrance, where the food was on display, and then the lectern and folding chairs toward the other end of the building, where all the religious nonsense happened.
Since the prayer meeting was about to begin, I inched toward the exit, hoping I didn’t appear too obvious. I was here to get something in my stomach, not have my soul saved.
“Are you leaving?” Randy had fastened himself to my elbow without me noticing. He seemed disappointed at the idea of me going, and I had no idea why.
I didn’t want to look like I’d only come in for the free food. I knew from experience church people might pretend they wanted you to partake of the food they’d set out, but the truth was there were always strings attached. Usually a long, boring lecture was hooked to baked goods of this excellent quality.
“I’m gonna go grab my wallet. I left it in the car, and I want to make a contribution to the basket.” Pulpit people loved donations.
“Oh, well, stay and study the word with us. You can always go out and get your wallet later.” Randy put his hand on my arm, and an electrical pulse ping-ponged through me. I decided it had to be static from the vinyl flooring. After all, I’d kind of been dragging my feet since I was weak with hunger.
“Um . . . I . . .” Son of a bitch. This do-gooder just had to latch on, didn’t he?
“I’d love to get to know you.” Randy’s gaze was warm and inquisitive. He had to be one of those social individuals who actually liked people. Me on the other hand? Not so much.
I looked around the room trying to think of how to escape gracefully. Polly had wandered away long ago, in search of a chair near the front. She was probably a bumper sticker for Christians who thought kissing the pastor’s ass was the way to earn points in heaven.
“There’s not much to know,” I mumbled, shifting nervously.
Randy smiled, showing perfect white teeth. “I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. What brought you here to Grace and Light Church?”
Was that the name of this place? Grace and Light? It was kind of nice sounding, but I still didn’t want to hang around and share my story with Randy. It was Saturday, and Baxter would expect to meet this evening for our biweekly rendezvous. I needed the money, and it would be wonderful to sleep in a hotel tonight.
“There was a flyer at the coffeehouse I go to every morning.” He didn’t need to know that I visited the alley behind the coffee place mostly. You’d be amazed how much virtually untouched food people throw away. Some mornings I was able to find enough to last me two days.
The man at the podium told everyone to open their Bibles, and the turning pages sounded like the fluttering of doves’ wings.
“Is your family from this area?” he asked quietly so as not to disturb the speaker at the front of the room.
“This general vicinity.”
I occasionally ran into my mom at the soup kitchen. She liked soup because she’d lost a lot of teeth from using meth so much. I never knew my dad, aka sperm donor. From what I gathered, he was a musician, but since they hadn’t exactly exchanged numbers, I’d never met him. It used to bother me a lot that I didn’t have a father around. But I’d been young then, and under the impression you needed family to get by in life. I’d since learned sometimes they were more of a hindrance than a help.
“How old are you?” he asked. His gaze was oddly intense, and my stomach fluttered nervously.
“Twenty-one.” I realized I was sucking the crumbs from the paper muffin cup as if I’d never eat again, and I stopped abruptly.
Regular people don’t eat the wrapper, dummy.
“Same age as me.” He gave that perfect smile of his.
I knew our similarities stopped at our shared age. It was obvious from his good-natured ways and confident smile that he believed in possibilities. I didn’t. Not anymore. Maybe I never really had. I could freely admit I didn’t have a lot of faith in the human race. One of my earliest memories was of my mom taking my winter coat and trading it for a fix. The good thing about my mother being such a horrible wreck was it had served as an excellent deterrent to me ever trying hard drugs. The most I’d ever done was smoke weed.
Not like I could afford pot. I didn’t really have any useful job skills—well, not the kind you learn at junior college. The one commodity I could trade was my body. I was also competent at conning people if the opportunity presented itself. I think I preferred selling myself for sex rather than the con, because both parties knew the score. No one was getting ripped off. It was merely a trade. You use my body and I get some cash. There was a clear simplicity to it that sat better with my conscience.
“Maybe you could tell some of your friends about our church.” Randy watched me expectantly. Naturally he assumed I had friends. He probably had loads of them. They most likely sat around studying the Bible, sipping hot chocolate, and showing off who knew more quotes from Scripture.
“Sure.” I had a hard time picturing some of the guys I knew hanging out here. They weren’t going to leave their corners for the promise of a muffin and a pep talk.
He laughed sheepishly. “Wow. I’m sorry.” He brushed my arm again, and his clean, masculine scent filled my nostrils. “I don’t mean to be so pushy. But you’re one of the few people my age to wander in lately. It gives me hope that the congregation has a future.”
I wasn’t used to people being so touchy-feely with me for no reason. It was confusing that a stranger, who wasn’t trying to have sex with me, would put his hands on my body. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the feelings of arousal the contact drummed up. This clean-cut kid probably had no idea what he was making me feel.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“My dad’s trying to bring this crowd into the twenty-first century.” He eyed the group listening to the sermon. “A lot of the older people in the congregation are upset with him because he’s trying to be inclusive. Every segment of society is welcome here.” He looked around and whispered near my ear, his warm breath wafting against my skin. “Much of the flock is rigid. They want to be the only ones allowed in ‘The Club.’” He made air quotes with his fingers.
It suddenly occurred to me what he must be saying. I turned to him, surprised. “Your dad’s the pastor here?”
He nodded. “I thought you knew.”
I shook my head. “Nope.” I felt doubly bad for having lewd thoughts about him. He was the chaste and pure son of the preacher, and I was definitely going to Hell now.
He squinted at me. “Does it freak you out that he’s my dad?”
“Someone has to be the head honcho, I guess.”
“Yeah. But it makes people act strange around me sometimes when they find out.” He studied me quietly. “I’m not a judgmental person.”
I shrugged. “A lot of churchy people are.”
“I know.” He sighed. “My family is far from perfect.” He wrinkled his brow and continued sincerely. “But I believe in God. And I strive to be my very best.”
I envied him. It must be wonderful to have faith in something other than your own ability to survive. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to think some Supreme Being had your back.
“I would expect no less from the son of a preacher.”
“Do you believe in God?” he asked quietly.
His question caught me off guard. I’d known that it would come eventually if I hung around long enough. I hadn’t expected it so soon. My stomach was pleasantly full from the muffin I’d liberated, and I hated cutting off my pastry supply by being truthful. I sucked in a big breath and I spun a yarn.
“I’ve been struggling with my faith lately.”
Lately. Like since the day I was born.
His expression softened immediately. There was nothing like when a do-gooder smelled fresh meat. Seeing the euphoria that came over them as they contemplated rescuing you was almost comical. Saving souls was like a drug to them, and they were desperate for their fix of sainthood.
“We all struggle. That’s normal.” His tone was gentle and comforting.
I shrugged, trying to appear agreeable, even as his sincerity irked me a bit. How dare he be so certain about things when he was the same age as me? Odds were he still believed in the tooth fairy. “I look around at the bad things in the world, and I wonder how there can be a God.”
“Man has free will. God wants us to make choices, or otherwise we’re just his puppets.”
I grimaced. “Yeah, not sure how a baby drowning qualifies as free will.”
He nodded, his expression pained. “I get what you’re saying.” He stared at his shoes. “Stuff with kids rattles my faith too.”
I was amazed at his honesty, and he went up a notch in my book. I studied his striking, angular features, his thick lashes resting on his cheeks. He hadn’t tried to pretend he had all the answers, and I liked that. If we’d met at a bar or something, would we have hit it off? I snickered mentally at that idea. Randy at a bar. It was like me standing here in this church rec room. Neither of us belonged in the other one’s world.
Randy’s voice was gentle and contemplative. “I like to think that maybe what happens here on Earth won’t matter to us when we get to Heaven. Perhaps it’s like when you burn your finger. It hurts like hell at the time, but then a month later you don’t remember it happening.”
Yeah, but when your whole life sucks, Randy, it’s harder to ignore.
“Maybe.” It wasn’t like I thought I had the answers either.
I glanced toward the door, feeling a little antsy. I should get going. But I wasn’t sure how to leave without being obvious that I was trying to escape. We stood in silence with me shifting impatiently every now and then.
“Do you need to leave?” he asked suddenly.
At first I wasn’t sure what to say. If I lied, I might be stuck here for hours, whereas if I was honest, I might not be welcomed back.
He surprised me when he laughed. “It’s okay if you do. I can tell you’re not feeling the sermon.”
“Yeah, this isn’t really my thing.” I figured I should probably drop the act. Now that I was on his radar, I wouldn’t be able to come and go like I wanted anyway. I wasn’t going to volunteer at bake sales and help put chairs away after prayer meetings so I could get a muffin and a cup of coffee now and then.
His stare was appraising, and he angled his body toward me. “What really brought you through our doors to begin with?”
“I told you, I saw your flyer.”
“Right. But you don’t have a Bible with you, and it’s a little hard to study the word of God without one.” He didn’t sound accusing so much as curious.
“I figured maybe I’d borrow one.”
He smiled. “Okay.” He looked skeptical, but he didn’t push.
I decided to reward his willingness to let me off the hook with honesty. “The shelter on Fifth Street is shut down.”
He frowned, seeming puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
I eyed the door again. “I was hungry.”
Shock appeared in his expression. “Wait . . . you mean . . .”
“Sorry. I hope you’re not mad. I kind of depend on that shelter for the occasional meal.”
“You’re homeless?” He ran his confused gaze over my skinny jeans and patent leather high-tops. “You don’t dress like you are.”
I patted my denim-covered thigh. “A friend bought me this stuff.” Baxter had been extra generous the last time we’d fucked. He’d felt bad because he got a little rough and wanted to make up for it. I wasn’t complaining, because having something that wasn’t secondhand was nice.
Running a hand over my hair, I didn’t bother to elaborate. “Anyway, since we both know the score, I’m going to take off now.” I moved toward the door, but his hand on my arm stopped me.
“Will you come back?”
Shrugging, I carefully extracted my elbow from his grip. “I don’t know.”
“Do you need money?” He cringed. “Wait. That came out wrong. I mean would you want to earn some money?”
I squinted at him suspiciously. I wasn’t about to sell Bibles door-to-door. “Doing what?”
“Grace and Light is helping to rebuild the shelter you’re talking about. If you’re interested in pitching in, we could pay you with food and a place to sleep.”
“Or—or money. We could give you a little cash too, if that’s more what you expect.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Our congregation is on the elderly side, as you may have noticed. We could use some younger guys to help out.”
I snorted. “You want me to do God’s work?” I shook my head. Holy crap. Some strange twinge of conscience made me add, “I’m not a good person.”
He pulled his brows together. “I don’t think that’s true.”
“It is though.” If he could see me blowing the men who approached me on the street, maybe that would help him see me clearly. Visual aids always helped. “Nice people like you find it hard to believe the worst. But I’m doing you a solid here by telling you the truth.”
“You don’t strike me as dangerous.”
“I’m not like that. But you wouldn’t want to leave me alone with your wallet. The temptation might be too great.” I gave him a pointed look.
“Oh.” His brow wrinkled again.
I wasn’t exactly sure why I felt compelled to warn him I wasn’t trustworthy. Maybe because he had a likeable innocence that tapped into some long-forgotten part of me. Also, I appreciated that he hadn’t seemed judgmental when he found out about my homeless status.
Oh, and most importantly: I’ve always had a thing for gingers.
He shrugged. “Well, we could still use your help. You look strong.” His gaze ran over my body slowly, and I could swear the pulse in his neck began to beat like the wings of a hummingbird. “Like I said, we need some younger guys to help out.”
“I don’t know.”
He backed off. “Just think about it.”
“Either way, you should come here anytime you want. That’s why we’re here.” He held his hand over his heart. “I promise not to pressure you.”
“All right.” Maybe he was only being so kind to me because of his religion, but it was obvious he meant what he was saying.
“Please remember Grace and Light welcomes everybody.” He squeezed my shoulder, and I swallowed against the stirrings his touch brought up in me yet again.
I doubted I would ever return. I had a feeling his sexy innocence might prove too tempting, and I would end up spoiling the poor guy in the broom closet. I belonged out on the streets, and he fit in here, safely tucked away amongst the silk suits and hairnets.
Right before I left, I made a slight detour past the food table. With a quick glance over my shoulder, I stuffed two muffins in my pocket and went back out into the real world.
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